Mauli Bonner had no experience directing and producing a feature-length film and organizing the creation of a historical monument. And yet his ambition and passion—with the Lord’s help—have led him to do just that.
In 2018, Mauli Bonner and other members of his musically talented family were invited to participate in the “Be One” celebration commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1978 revelation on the priesthood. The night was sponsored by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and featured music, Black stories, history, and culture in a way never seen before in the Church. And Mauli Bonner walked away from that night a changed man.
“At the celebration, I’m watching these segments on Jane Manning James—and I knew a little bit about her before this—but I was learning more. And I’d heard of Elijah Abel, who was an early priesthood holder, but that’s about it. The rest was just totally new. I heard [the name] Green Flake and I'm like, ‘Green Flake?!’ I just didn’t know that Black pioneers existed. I just thought Black folks came [to the Church] around 1978. So to watch this unfold and realize that I knew so little, I also realized how much I needed to learn. And I just dove into learning as much as I could as fast as I could learn it,” Bonner says.
Bonner admits that learning about enslaved Black Latter-day Saints could have made him question his faith, but instead it had the opposite effect.
“It rooted me in my testimony. It strengthened me, and I realized that learning truth—with the light of Christ and with the right spirit—only strengthens us. There is a generation out there that is hurting. And as they learn new things, they’re typically learning it through a TikTok or a Google search or an argument at school. They’re feeling like they’ve been blindsided by some of these sensitive parts of our history. But as children, we're learning about people doing these unimaginably hard things [in the scriptures], and we tell those stories. We can draw strength from their struggle—Joseph going through parts of his life enslaved, and Nephi being mistreated by his brothers. We do not shy away from those stories, because that’s who we are as Saints. When we’re talking about Black history, we can still draw strength from these pioneers who endured the unimaginable,” he says.
With that perspective in mind and after an intense month of study and sleepless nights, Bonner had written 200 pages and 10 songs for a feature-length film, and within three months, he had a cast and crew filming his new project. Incredibly enough, this was Bonner’s first foray into writing, directing, and producing a movie. But when asked why he chose to tell this story, Bonner responded, “Because it happened. This faith-building story needs to be told, and if not now then when? And if not me, then who?”
His devotion to the project as well as his love for these stories and these people paid off. His Name Is Green Flake won “Best Film” in 10 film festivals, including the London Independent Film Awards, the Los Angeles Film Awards, the Venice Film Awards, and more. The movie also received over 40 other awards for writing, costuming, score, and acting.
“The film turned out to be beautiful, and I don’t say that because I’m the director. I feel like I had nothing to do with it!” Bonner told The Daily Universe. “The Lord guided everyone’s hands and lips [in] their scenes, and it was incredible.”
But one award-winning feature film wasn’t enough. Bonner still felt passionate that these stories needed to be better known. After an early screening of his film with the Church History Department, Bonner says he was able to have some incredible discussions about making more of these important stories accessible to the public. He adds that when he began his intense study of Black pioneers after the “Be One” celebration, it was only after he connected with official Church historians that he was able to find many documents and source material. But he wants that information to be more accessible to members of the Latter-day Saint community.
“People need to learn about our history from us. They shouldn't have to be a historian or have to go outside of our faith to learn about our faith,” he says. And some steps in the right direction are already being made: today the Church website has a landing page full of stories and photos of Black Latter-day Saint pioneers.
Shortly after Green Flake won “Best Film” at festivals in London, Rome, Istanbul, and Los Angeles, Bonner wanted to put together a celebratory photo shoot for his cast and crew at official Church monuments to honor these incredible early Latter-day Saints. But his plan hit a snag.
“I just assumed these heroic pioneers that I learned about—who endured enslavement and still pioneered—I thought that there were monuments [to these people]. And so I was like, ‘OK, cast and crew, we’re [going to] take pictures by these monuments!’ And there were none. And that’s when I realized what this was all about.”
Up to this point, Green Flake had only been in film festivals; it hadn’t been released to the public yet. So Bonner—a brand new, inexperienced director with more at stake than most—vowed that upon the film’s public release, all of the proceeds would go toward building a physical monument to the first Black pioneers that came to the Salt Lake Valley. Bonner had no location, no plan, no timeline, and no real power to make this monument a reality, but he was deeply committed to making a lasting tribute to these early Latter-day Saints.
The monument project started picking up speed after the film’s public release in 2021 and information about the film’s proceeds began to roll out. A benefit concert for the construction of a monument was held on May 15, 2021, and featured performances from The Bonner Family, The Piano Guys, Michael McLean, Alex Boyé, and others. And Bonner says that with help from other significant community members shortly thereafter, the project was “as good as done.”
“Mauli Bonner is a visionary,” says Excel Entertainment director Arthur Van Wagenen, who helped with the film’s public distribution. “There’s just no other way to say it. Releasing the film through watch parties and the benefit concert was such a unique strategy, and we are grateful to have been a small part of it.”
And now, exactly 175 years after Green Flake, Hark Wales, and Oscar Smith entered the Salt Lake Valley, a brand new monument to these early Black pioneers will be dedicated at This is the Place Heritage Park on Friday, July 22, at 10:00 a.m. Government and community leaders, special guests, and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be in attendance, and the dedication ceremony is free and open to the public. The new monument includes sculptures of many early Black pioneers: Green Flake; Jane Manning James andher two sons; Sylvester and Silas; as well as Hark Wales and Oscar Smith, all of whom played instrumental roles in the settlement of Utah. That evening, The Bonner Family, Alex Boye, the Truman Brothers, Calee Reed, the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir, and Dallyn Vail Bayles will perform in a concert commemorating and honoring our collective pioneer history. Ticket information is available at deseretbookpresents.com.
“Mauli’s tenacity and faith have been a gift to watch,” Deseret Book Company president Laurel Day shared. “He knew he received a clear impression to honor these brave pioneers and he followed every impression after. He did it for them and he did it for all of us. In that way, these monuments are as much about the stories today as they are about the stories of our collective history.”
“Everyone who has seen the film has contributed to this monument,” Bonner says. “So when you come on July 22, you’re looking at what you helped build. As we’re learning about these people, we’re also giving back and trying to build representation. And I think that’s just beautiful.”
About the Monument’s Honorees:
Green Flake was born into slavery on the Jordan Flake plantation in North Carolina. James and Agnes Flake took Green with them when they moved to Mississippi, and their family joined the Church in 1844 when Green was 16. Green was part of the vanguard company that led the Latter-day Saint trek west, joined by enslaved Latter-day Saints Hark Wales and Oscar Smith. Green Flake drove the first wagon train into Emigration Canyon under the direction of Orson Pratt, and the company arrived at Parley’s Creek on July 22, 1847, two days ahead of Brigham Young.
Jane Manning James converted to the Church in the 1840s and became close friends with Joseph and Emma Smith while living with them in Nauvoo. She and her family entered the Salt Lake Valley in September 1847.
For more information about each of these early pioneers, visit greenflakemovie.com.